From the bailout spotlight, Greeks are feeling recovery pains at the elections

Athens, Greece — For the first time in more than a decade, Greeks will go to the polls on Sunday to elect a leader who will no longer just manage the country’s economy from the back seat.

Conservative Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is seeking a second term after a draconian spending control regime imposed by international bailout lenders ended last summer.

The clean-cut Harvard graduate, who speaks English as comfortably as his native Greek, has unexpectedly produced strong growth, a sharp drop in unemployment and a country on the brink of returning to investment grade in the global bond market.

Debts to the International Monetary Fund were paid early.

The re-election of Mitsotakis, 55, was once considered a foregone conclusion. But the center-right New Democracy party may struggle to return to power as Greece’s voters and political parties recover from a long-running battle for survival.

On an unseasonably hot day in central Athens, taxi driver Christina Messari waited patiently in start-stop traffic near the Greek parliament, where tourists gather around giant purple banners erected by the Greek Communist Party for its main election rally.

“The last four years have been like looking at a heart rate monitor: up, then down… when business improves, prices go up, so you stay in the same place,” the 49-year-old said.

European governments and the IMF pumped 280 billion euros ($300 billion) into the Greek economy between 2010 and 2018 to prevent the eurozone member from going bankrupt. In return, they demanded cost-cutting measures and reforms.

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A severe recession and years of emergency borrowing have left Greece with a massive public debt that reached 400 billion euros last December and eroded household incomes that will likely take another decade to recover.

Exhausted after the political and economic turmoil of the bailout era, ordinary Greeks sank into private debt, low wages and precarious employment.

Messari lost her bakery business during the Depression before joining her husband as a taxi driver. During the closures due to the epidemic, they switched to package delivery to make ends meet.

“I think things need to change so that people can live with dignity and not just work to cover their basic expenses and pay their taxes,” he said.

Mitsotakis lost a long-standing double-digit lead in the polls following a Feb. 28 train disaster that killed 57 people, many of them university students — tarnishing the government’s role as a business-oriented modernizer.

A passenger train has collided with an oncoming freighter that was mistakenly placed on the same track in northern Greece. It was later discovered that the train stations were understaffed and the security infrastructure was broken and out of date.

The European Parliament is also investigating a murky surveillance scandal after prominent Greek politicians and journalists discovered spyware on their phones. The revelations have deepened mistrust among the country’s political parties at a time when consensus may be sorely needed.

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Six political parties are preparing for national representation, from NATO-skeptic nationalists to communist parties who admire the Soviet Union 32 years after its collapse.

The far-right Greek Party, which was founded by a jailed former member of parliament engaged in neo-Nazi activities, was barred from participating by the Supreme Court.

The head of the opposition is 48-year-old Alexis Tsipras, former prime minister and fiery leader of the left-wing Syriza party. His campaign focused heavily on the train disaster and the wiretapping scandal.

Opinion polls show that Sunday’s elections will not produce a clear winner under the newly introduced system of proportional representation. A second election may also be necessary at the beginning of July, when the system would be restored to give the winning party a mandate premium.

Current polling data suggest that even if Mitsotakis could be forced into a coalition, the once powerful socialist Pasok party – which almost disappeared during the crisis – could retain power.

“There is no consensus culture in our political system, it’s more of a zero-sum: if you lose, I win,” says Thodoris Georgakopoulos, editorial director of diaNEOsis, an independent think tank in Athens.

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He argues that Greece has a rare opportunity for bipartisan decision-making, as the three largest political parties, New Democracy, Syriza and Pasok, are publicly committed to fiscal responsibility and deeper integration into the European Union.

The grace period for the bailout loans’ relatively low annual repayment bills will last another 10 years, he said: “Then we will definitely have to come up with a new productive model for the country.”

He added: “We have left many of our most important reforms for last, in justice, education and health, because they will be the most difficult. The challenge in these elections will be to find the necessary consensus among the country’s political forces to implement these very difficult reforms.”

More than 9.8 million Greeks can vote in Sunday’s general election for 300 members of the unicameral parliament, who serve four-year terms. The voting age will be lowered to 17 for the first time, and on another occasion Greek citizens living abroad will be able to vote in their country of residence.

Polling stations in 22,000 polling stations will open at 7:00 a.m. (04:00 GMT) and remain open until 12:00 p.m. The Ministry of the Interior estimates that 80% of the votes will be counted by 10pm